When a child in the family has a chronic illness, it has a significant impact on the daily life of the entire family. Routines are disrupted, priorities shift, finances are strained, emotions intensify, and relationships are stressed. Naturally, parents tend to focus more on the child who is sick, which can leave siblings feeling sad, lonely, scared, angry, guilty and even jealous. Younger siblings, in particular, may have limited understanding of the intellectual and emotional aspects of the situation. Even if a younger sibling is healthy and capable of playing independently, they still require regular time, attention and comfort from their parents.
Parents, however, are preoccupied with the medical condition and their own fears. They must not only deal with their own emotions, but also navigate the emotions of both the ill and healthy children. While this challenge is difficult for a two-parent home, it is even more trying for a single parent. Despite their own distress, parents must strive to establish a “new normal” that provides structure, care and comfort to all their children. Preserving parent-child connections, as well as maintaining consistency in family life, often requires creative approaches and the utilization of a wide-ranging support network and available resources. This helps to ensure ongoing connection and communication with the children not diagnosed with a chronic illness. Recognizing when to accept or seek help from extended family, friends, other caregivers and professionals is crucial for parents in this situation.
Some ways to nurture a sibling in a family facing pediatric illness include:
Nurture bonds and show affection. Regularly express affection verbally and physically. Snuggle and hug! Reassure the child of continued care and love. Create quality time together for both healthy and ill children, doing their favorite things in new ways.
Provide structure and regularity. Maintain consistent family routines for meals, playtime and bedtime to the best of your ability. Stay in touch daily when away overnight with the ill child. Remember to stay in the parent role and let the child be a child.
Be truthful and understanding. Discuss the child’s illness or condition with siblings in terms they can understand. If the sibling is comfortable, involve them in clinic visits. Reassuringly explain upcoming changes in household routine or with caregivers. Encourage the child to openly express their feelings and validate their emotions, even if they are intense.
Be playful and attentive. Try to honor regular, one-on-one play with young children, with emphasis on involvement and quality, especially when time is limited. Read and draw together. If there are older siblings who play video games, play along with them and show interest in their hobbies. Arrange special visits for the healthy child with extended family and friends.
Families can best balance all their children’s needs through communication, predictability, creativity and the support of caregivers and professionals. Each family should build a nurturing structure and pattern of daily life that responds to and celebrates every child’s unique needs.